America’s Most Unlikely Energy Project Is Rising From a Louisiana Bayou
From a mile away, at the distant end of a flat, two-lane road, the Sabine Pass Liquefied Natural Gas terminal materializes like an alien city from the haze of the Louisiana bayou. Five white cylinders with domed tops, each 140 feet tall and 225 feet in diameter, rise from the empty horizon. Set on the Texas border 4 miles from the mouth of the Sabine River on the Gulf Coast, the terminal is one of the largest industrial energy facilities under construction in North America. The domes, made of nickel alloy and wrapped in a layer of carbon steel, are essentially giant freezers, each capable of holding 81,000 tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) at -260F.
Cheniere Energy, based in Houston, has spent more than a decade, and upwards of $20 billion, turning 1,000 acres of swamp into the first LNG export terminal in the continental U.S. When the terminal goes live later this year, it will change the dynamics of the energy market in North America. The U.S. will be on its way to becoming a net exporter of natural gas. About 700 million cubic feet of the stuff will begin arriving each day from all over the country—from Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and as far away as North Dakota—to this spot at the end of America’s natural gas pipeline network.
At the terminal, the gas will circulate through roughly a mile of steel pipes and refrigeration systems organized into metal racks spread out across the plant. The racks aren’t unlike the one on the back of a household refrigerator, except they’re 500 feet wide and a quarter of a mile long. In the heart of each rack are two “cold boxes,” the biggest of which is a 1,400-ton, seven-story steel rectangle. Those boxes are the property of ConocoPhillips. What happens inside is so secret that a Cheniere employee can’t go in without being accompanied by someone from ConocoPhillips.
Over about five minutes, the gas will cool until it becomes a highly pressurized liquid, weighing 3.5 pounds per gallon, after which it will get pumped into those giant storage tanks. From there it will be loaded onto foreign tankers and sold to customers worldwide, from power utilities in Spain and Britain to state-owned gas corporations in India and Korea.
To cool all that gas, Sabine Pass makes its own power. Cheniere paid General Electric $1 billion for 24 gas-fired turbines that were initially designed as jet engines. By the time the terminal is fully operational, they’ll generate about 450 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a city of almost 300,000 homes. The docks at Sabine Pass are in water deep enough to accommodate some of the largest tankers in the world. The energy each ship will be able to carry is equal to the explosive force of a 7.5-kiloton atomic bomb.